Since Ouje-Bougoumou was established as a permanent community in the 1990s – after being displaced by mining and forestry companies for decades – it has gained international fame for its architecture and community development initiatives.
With public buildings designed by renowned architect Douglas Cardinal and development guided by a vision of sustainability, the community earned awards from the United Nations, among others. As its population nears 1000, Ouje-Bougoumou is setting the stage for future growth.
“There’s great potential here,” said Ron Simard, O-J’s new director of economic development and marketing. “I understand where the community wants to go and I’d like to make it easy for entrepreneurs to get it rolling, give them the right tools.”
The year got off to a tough start, as more than a third of community members were required to self-isolate during a Covid-19 outbreak after holiday gatherings. As one of the only Cree communities without a grocery store, community members were vulnerable to infections from nearby non-Cree towns.
Building a grocery store is one of those plans. Wally Wapachee is leading the development of a new training centre relevant to local needs while a small shopping centre is set to start construction next year.
These services are integrated in a vision of green infrastructure, such as a housing program that provides affordable, comfortable and energy-efficient homes built in harmony with the natural terrain to reduce water and sewer infrastructure costs. For instance, a ridge of gravel acts as a natural filter for water from nearby Lake Opémisca.
Its innovative energy system uses industrial waste from area sawmills to provide heat and hot water for the entire village. In 2019, this project was modernized with the installation of Canada’s largest containerized wood biomass boiler along with new control panels and pipes. It now heats at least 15 commercial buildings and 200 homes, consuming about 3,800 tonnes of sawmill waste annually.
“We have been proud to be a leader in the adoption of this technology that will allow our community to continue as an example for other communities throughout Canada in the areas of appropriate energy technology and local community development,” said Chief Curtis Bosum at the time. “Our heating system is a demonstration that the values and philosophies inherent in our Indigenous culture have relevance to contemporary challenges.”
Resource development projects still divide community members into camps favouring environmental protection or economic opportunity, however. One controversial example is BlackRock Metals, which reportedly intends to level Gawashebuggidnajj mountain to create an open-pit titanium, vanadium and high-purity iron mine.
Although an impact benefit agreement was signed in 2013, the Wapachee family told Canadian Geographic last year that there will now be fewer jobs and more environmental impact than originally promised. Before the mine opens, the Wapachees will have to relocate one of their seasonal hunting camps.
While the region is plagued by abandoned mines, rehabilitation efforts at these sites may be expedited by a partnership with the municipality of Chibougamau. A Cree contractor was recently awarded a restoration construction project for the abandoned Principale mine in April and both communities intend to pursue similar projects.
Meanwhile, summer has seen a return to near normalcy despite a decline in the tourism industry. The Recreation and Sports Association will host its summer games in mid-August, there are tent-making and bush-kit training projects, and a youth canoe brigade is paddling the waters for two weeks.
“They’re trying to start a community garden to help the school,” added Simard. “It’s more Wally’s project – he wants to get the students to learn about agriculture and perhaps make enough greens to provide our local store and dépanneurs. Crees are starting to have more awareness about their health.”
As Simard begins his new role, he is inspired to stimulate community engagement and reduce dependence on workers from the south. Guided by the community’s strategic plan and ideas generated at the recent annual general assembly, he’s eager to help achieve Ouje-Bougoumou’s potential.
“I have a long list of ideas,” shared Simard. “Some are not very realistic, but we can still dream. Living a life that’s productive can be very rewarding and fulfilling because you’re living a purpose. That’s something I’d like to help people realize. You can have an amazing life – we have everything here.”